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Ask a Gardener

Here’s some of the most frequent questions our gardeners receive. If you’ve got a question you’d like our gardeners to answer here, email us at: ddavis@smithgilbertgardens.com

I want a low maintenance landscape.  How do I do that?

First, get a plan done by an experienced designer in whom you have trust.  Secondly, keep turf areas to a minimum.  Typically, grass takes the most time and money in terms of labor and materials.  Lastly, pay careful attention to the mature aspects of any plant and make sure that what it will look like in a few years will fit the space into which it is to be introduced.  Generally speaking, a newly planted landscape should look a bit ‘thin’ in order to accommodate future growth.

When is the best time to prune?

Well, that depends, but here are some basic guidelines . . . first, removal of dead or broken limbs or branches can be done at any time during the year. Most spring flowering plants form their buds in the prior growing season.  These plants are considered to bloom on “old wood”.  The best time to prune those shrubs is just after they flower so that they have time to set flowering wood for next spring.   Plants that flower on “new wood” such as roses and butterfly bush are best pruned in the late winter to encourage the development of fresh growth and the resultant flowering wood.  While crape myrtles flower on new wood also, they don’t need the butchering frequently given them.  If you have to prune a crape myrtle to keep it in bounds, either transplant it to a new location or just let it grow. Unless you’re growing bonsai, few plants should be pruned in a manner that keeps them from reaching their mature aspects.

General pruning for shaping, etc., can be done during the growing season and up until Labor Day.  As pruning stimulates the production of new growth, such work done late in the season can cause developing tissue to be damaged by early frosts and winter cold.  Thus, avoid pruning between Labor Day and roughly mid-November if at all possible.

We get this call a lot in the springtime . . . “My hollies are yellowing and losing a lot of leaves.  Are they dying?”

And the correct answer is, not usually.  Many of our ornamental hollies are evergreen, and as new growth develops in the springtime the older foliage yellows and falls off.  This older growth is almost always on the interior of the plant and is part of the natural process of plant expansion.

What is a good, fast growing shade tree?

There are several excellent choices in our area.  Red Maples (Acer rubrum), Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera), and Willow Oak (Quercus phellos) are all large growing (60-100’) trees that are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions.  Due to their mature size, ample spacing should be devoted to their positioning in the landscape.  If one has more patience and less space, smaller growing trees such as Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum), Trident Maples (Acer buergerianum), and Kousa Dogwoods (Cornus kousa) are possibilities with most types reaching 20-30’ in height and spread.  A visit to the Gardens will reveal other promising options that may require a careful, but worthwhile search for sources.

I’m interested in perennial gardening and want to know what plants are best for novice gardeners.

Here is a partial listing of some of the easier to grow perennial plants for sunny areas:  Daylilies (Hemerocallis species), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberose), Cannas (Canna generalis), Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), German or Bearded Iris (Iris hybrids), Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa), Creeping Phlox or Thrift (Phlox subulata), and Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida).  As your confidence grows, consider adding more challenging varieties.

What are the basics for attracting butterflies to my garden?

Bright colorful blossoms such as oranges, reds, yellows, and purples are most appealing to butterflies.  Specifically, zinnias, phlox, butterfly weed, verbena, and lantanas are very good attractors in our area.  Milkweed, clover, and fennel are also good host plants for egg laying by these beautiful insects.

What can I do to protect my trees from construction activities?

First, avoid disturbing the soil about the base of a tree as much as possible and never add more than an inch or two of soil.  The most common cause of tree failure during building is that too much soil gets placed about the base of the tree.

Secondly, while a healthy tree can survive some root loss, don’t cut them if at all possible, especially large ones.  Maintain a two to three inch layer of mulch about the base of the tree to help conserve moisture and to avoid the need for mowers to come too close to the trunk.  During the growing season apply one inch of water each week during dry periods to help trees recover from construction induced stress.

When is the best time to divide my perennials?

Many perennials will need the rejuvenation of division every two to three years.  Spring flowering perennials are best divided in the fall, while summer and fall blooming plants can be divided during the spring and summer growing season.  Several signs indicate that your plants may need division: poor flowering, dying or dead centers, or just plain floppy.  Of course, it’s always important to make sure that each perennial has its specific requirements of sunlight, drainage, and spacing.

What is the best grass choice for my lawn?

In our area, the best selection for low maintenance, traffic tolerance (children, pets), and low weed growth are the zoysias.  There are several different varieties on the market now.  For the shadier areas, fescues remain a preference and are inexpensive to install as most types can be seeded which costs much less to do than sodding.  Fescue can be installed as sod, but is best done during the cooler months.  Southern turfs such as zoysias, Bermuda, Centipede, etc. are best planted during the warmer period of mid-May through the first of September.  In deeply shaded areas that have lots of tree roots for competition, consider planting Mondo Grass, Liriope, or Vinca minor as an alternate groundcover to turf.

How often should I be watering?

On an established landscape, once or twice a week thoroughly should be enough.  ‘Enough’ means an application of one inch of water during the growing season and during dry periods.   Irrigating on every occasion allowed on an odd-even system may lead to problems associated with over-watering.  All sprinkling systems should have both rain and freeze proof sensors and be designed to segregate turf from bed areas for the simple reason that grass has a greater need for moisture than do trees and shrubs.

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